Ethics and Politics
People often start out, on occasions like this one, by saying it is a great honour to be standing at a podium, like this one, to give a speech. In my case, I can tell you that it truly is a great honour to be here today, in the company of amazing people I admire a great deal – people like Barbara McDougall, Sheila Copps, Ed Broadbent, Duff Conacher and Elizabeth May.
All of us want to hear from them, not me, so I will be brief.
I didn’t really know what to talk about at this conference, until I read an op-ed by Ms. May in this week’s Hill Times. In it, she expressed despair about the lack of progress on the environmental front, due to what she called “the toxic level of partisanship” on Parliament Hill. Ms. May wrote that Parliamentary acrimony over ethical scandals has bogged down positive environmental legislative change – or stopped it entirely. She’s right.
So that got me thinking. How do we eliminate Ottawa’s “toxic partisanship” levels?
Well, I figured I would start with a series of provocative statements. The Corporate Knights people told me to rile you up, so I will try and do just that. I am alleged to be good at shit-disturbing – ask Sheila.
One, I once worked for former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Proudly.
Two, I was Chief of Staff to a Minister at the Department of Public Works in the mid-1990s.
Three, I knew Chuck Guité – and I thought he, and other public servants I worked with, did a good job.
Four, I helped to oversee the new Liberal government’s advertising and polling activity in fiscal years 1994 and 1995.
Now let me make the most provocative statement of all: let me, the so-called Chrétien attack poodle, who worked at Public Works, give you my thoughts about ethics and politics. It’s a timely choice of subject matter, as Elizabeth May might agree.
Because, let’s face it, if there was ever a time in our history when that phrase – ethics and politics – has become an oxymoron, I can’t think of it. At all levels, our politics have been battered by a seemingly endless number of ethical scandals: municipally, provincially, and – of course – the sponsorship mess in Ottawa.
The latest scandal, meanwhile, is a real scandal: tapes apparently showing that the Prime Minister knew that his Chief of Staff was offering a Conservative MP Senate seats and diplomatic postings in exchange for missing a key vote. If an RCMP investigation finds that is true, I do not know how Paul Martin’s government can survive. Or why it should.
It’s all very depressing. A Strategic Counsel poll released this week showed that two-thirds of Canadians say they have little or no confidence in political leaders. The same poll found a majority of Canadians saying we have more scandals happening than we used to.
Politics and ethics have become two diverging lines. The consequences are profound: declining voter rates, and rising rates of cynicism and anger.
But despite my reputation for doing otherwise, I won’t simply state the obvious. I won’t do what so many others have done – and attack politics, and attack politicians, and declare that the solution lies in the creation of more codes of ethics, and more laws and regulations – and even more public inquiries and more standing committees.
A legion of men and women, all of who are who are a lot (a lot) smarter than me, have done that before: they assail politicians for their moral bankruptcy, and they call for yet another Royal Commission. But, at the end of the day, nothing ever seems to get any better, does it? Do you feel that our politics are becoming more ethical? Do you feel that our politics are getting cleaner?
I didn’t think so. Even if our politics are more ethical than they were, say, just a few decades ago – and they are, and there are plenty of learned studies that prove that – the fact is this: people feel politics is, as Disraeli said, the art of governing people through deceiving them. The people, rightly or wrongly, feel that things are getting worse, in politics, and not better. That is a fact. That’s why we’re not getting things done on the environment front, or other fronts.
Here is another fact, and it is my main argument – and it’s a miracle, frankly, that it has only taken me four double-spaced pages to get to it. Listening to me, or anyone, talk about the importance of ethics is not going to improve anyone’s behaviour. That is like reading about sports, and believing it will turn you into a better athlete. Things don’t work that way.
To mangle someone else’s phrase about morality, political ethics are not taught; they are caught. Caught, not taught. (Repeat it, out loud, five times, and you will start to sound like Jesse Jackson.)
I believe that with every fibre of my soul – if I had one, that is, which is a matter of some debate. I believe that we – all of us – have been going about the “ethics and politics” debate in precisely the wrong way. We should be, one, realistic about our expectations about politicians – who, despite all evidence to the contrary, are human beings, and therefore flawed. Two, we should stop drafting yet more regulations about political ethics – and we should start encouraging an ethical political (and legal, and journalistic, and business) culture that begins in the heart, and not on the page.
And yes, yes, yes, I too am appalled, and sickened, by the nature and size of the waste and greed in the sponsorship mess. Who isn’t. But the way in many politicians have pursued the sponsorship story has only left Canadians feeling politicians are less ethical. Not more so. So to today’s revelations about senior government officials attempting to buy an opposition MP’s vote. This kind of stuff has made voters more cynical, and angry, and less likely to involve themselves in the democracy that is Canada.
And if there is any greater sin, I do not know what it is. The quest for a more ethical politics should be enhancing voter participation, not diminishing it – don’t you think?
In my experience, voters are interested how a politician votes. They are interested in who contributes to the politician’s campaign, or which special interests are supporting that politician. They are interested in his or her public statements.
And here’s something Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe should keep in mind. Voters are not interested in “scandals” involving politicians – certainly not to the extent politicians and the media are.
Until a politician has been actually charged, convicted, and sent to prison, voters will generally withhold judgment. They have seen too many wild and baseless allegations, made too many times, to be influenced by any single charge or accusation.
Politicize your differences, I tell the candidates I work for. Don’t criminalize them. It’s possible to have a robust, rollicking debate without further alienating voters about all of us political types – be we on the Left or be we on the Right.
And that is my advice – and that, plus four bucks, will get you a non-fat latté. Stop screaming about scandal all the time. Stop talking about new ethics rules all the time. Ethics are caught, ethics aren’t taught.
So let’s catch some ethics, and thereby get back to the things that really matter – like positive environmental change.
In my opinion, that’s how to eliminate what Elizabeth May calls “toxic partisanship” – the toxic partisanship that is stopping us from doing the things that really need to be done.
Now, what I really need to do is stop talking and sit down. Thank you.